When choosing which local clusters to focus on, think of them all as your children…

A cluster consultant typically looks very quickly at a few, mostly using vague big picture tools like Census data, and then decides in the hotel room that night which ones to highlight in a Powerpoint presentation for the study’s funders. So your clusters to concentrate on are greatly determined by what’ll fit on a slide or two and that the consultant recognized in those hectic short interviews with the usual suspects in town. No wonder it either seems like belaboring the obvious like clusters they noticed in the drive from the airport (“say, lots of crops along the highway, farming must be big here…hmmm”) or picking several “hot” clusters that the study’s funders desperately want to join that trend and become the Next Silicon Valley, the Next Hollywood, the Next uh really cool thing with bunches of jobs.

Every community doesn’t have the 2-3 clusters, or no cluster at all, that the academics and consultants tell you to concentrate on. When I do a thorough look, a dozen significant clusters are common in even a very low population and quite rural county while in a small city 60 or more clusters are evident and in a major city it’s more likely hundreds. So choosing a coupe of clusters to focus on says more about one’s own attention span and commitment to learning their community’s clusters. People who’ve been in place for a long time who want someone else to find all their clusters baffle me, it’s much like your child explaining that basketball practice has consumed all of their homework alloted time so you’ll need to hire the neighbor’s diligent child (wears glasses so must be smarter) to take your child’s tests incognito as your child does need the passing grades and advancement. Hear it all the time and clusters are easy to spot as pattern recognition goes as you’re by definition looking for a bunch of something, so haystacks rather than a needle in a haystack.

It dawned on me that choosing which existing local clusters to focus the community’s development resources on is much like looking around the family table at one’s dozen children, aging parents and in-laws, old and new family dogs, and quickly deciding before dessert is served:
1. These 3 kids are clearly the future based on recent awards within my field of vision right now, sheer proximity, likeability, or comparative height. They get to go to college on me, grad school if they want it. Probably should buy them a car too. (Subsidies, taxbreaks, workforce training, custom facilities, R&D help, industrial parks, and bragged about to neighboring communities.)

2. The other 9 children haven’t really caught my attention tonight despite their lifetime of efforts, achievement, growth, charm,or importance to keeping this family farm working. So they don’t get any further investment and instead will all have to take on part-time or full-time jobs in town to pay for their top 3 sibling’s college education and new cars. Sure there will be grumbling (taxpayers paying for the chosen subsidy receivers) but they just have to realize they don’t really matter to me anymore no matter how much I actually depend on them.

3. The parents and in-laws? Their productive years are over and they’re just a drain so it’s best to set new policies and constrain resources to prompt their demise or departures. It’s Schumpeter’s “Creative Destruction” where the old and uncompetitive clusters are ignored or starved so new can arise from them (not sure if that would be their grandchildren starting clusters or they’re revived as zombies- cash-cow taxpayers expecting less than nothing.)

As you can see, declaring vast swaths of the local business community irrelevant or at least uninteresting, and especially unworthy of further time and attention is bizarrely cruel even if it does fit more neatly into the study’s executive summary or slides 8-10 of the powerpoint presentation. The interrelationships between a community’s clusters are easy to overlook and fascinating too…the cafe has lousy food, the motel was last updated in the 1960’s, the high school thinks it’s just there to train student athletes for college scholarships/local entertainment, and the town’s available buildings have no local tradesmen to fix or remodel them, hmmm every other cluster is going to have significant problems from those other clusters’ performance or absence.

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